Lana Del Rey’s New Way of Seeing

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Lana Del Rey always makes me think about John Berger, the writer and critic who died this past January, at the age of ninety. In “Ways of Seeing,” Berger wrote that a woman is “almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself.” Since she entered the pop ecosystem, in 2011, Del Rey’s career has been defined by extravagant self-consciousness, rendered through a narrow set of intertwined cultural tropes. In “Blue Jeans” and “Video Games,” the D.I.Y. music videos that made her famous, Del Rey intercut Webcam clips of herself with archival footage of American iconography: palm trees, Vegas neon, roses blooming, police, paparazzi, the Stars and Stripes. (These days, on Instagram, she often murmurs her music into the front-facing camera of her phone.) She pouted as she sang, wearing lace and gold and crosses, looking like a self-composed collage. She was a moll, a starlet, a Stepford wife—a “gangster Nancy Sinatra,” as she herself put it. She seemed so aware of the image she was creating that, to many, she inevitably seemed fake.

But artifice is not the same thing as dishonesty. Forty years before social media would lend a new dimension to his thesis, Berger wrote that a woman’s “own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another”—namely, by a male viewer. Women, Berger argued, live in a state of self-consciousness that is at once artificial and authentic to the world we live in. He offers two images for comparison: the 1814 Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres painting “La Grande Odalisque” and a photo from a nineteen-sixties girlie magazine. “Is not the expression remarkably similar in each case?” he asks. “It is the expression of a woman responding with calculated charm to the man whom she imagines looking at her—although she doesn’t know him.” It is an expression that Del Rey wears as she stares at the camera in those early videos. She controlled the process, unlike the women in those images; but, like them, she was “offering up her femininity as the surveyed,” as Berger put it. As tends to happen, she was both rewarded and punished for doing so.

My favorite Del Rey song is the demo version of “National Anthem,” a song that appeared on her début album, “Born to Die,” from 2012. The album cut is a sweeping, kitschy, string-section fantasia; its opening sounds like the Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony.” The demo is rougher, with a crunchy, grinding beat and a Joan Jett bass line. In the D.I.Y. video that accompanies it, Del Rey dances in a dress that looks like a cupcake, singing for the camera between clips of Elvis, fireworks, and Air Force One. She’s isolated—she has the look of someone who’s locked herself in a hotel room—and she wears that expression again, luxuriating in the pleasure of her own image as viewed by an as-yet-imaginary audience. “He will do very well / I can tell, I can tell / Keep me safe, in his bell tower, hotel,” she sings. She has fully allied her performance with the idea that, as Berger wrote, women are “born, within an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of men.”

That video was leaked in June, 2012, shortly before the release of the official video—a seven-minute production in which Del Rey plays both Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy to A$AP Rocky’s J.F.K. It is a hyper-specific distillation of American romance: golden late afternoon on Chappaquiddick; champagne and diamonds; blue hydrangeas, red dresses, endless green lawns. Visually and lyrically, the imagery is simple: rich men and beautiful women; freedom through submission—“wind in my hair / hand on the back of my neck.” Del Rey’s two governing aesthetics, love and country, collapse into each other completely. “Tell me I’m your national anthem,” she pleads on the chorus, repeating the line as the chords shift to sudden, unnerving euphoria. If Del Rey’s entire project is an experiment in all-encompassing narrative obedience, this song is proof of concept to me. The national anthem is as good a metaphor as any for the blind, binding pledges of romantic love.

Throughout the last six years, Del Rey has remained fixated almost exclusively on love and America, and her favored references touch on both things simultaneously. “My pussy tastes like Pepsi-Cola / My eyes are wide like cherry pies,” she sings on “Cola,” from her 2012 EP “Paradise.” Including the large cache of demos from the period when she was performing under her given name, Lizzy Grant, you’d be hard-pressed to find a Del Rey song that doesn’t mention fireworks, cherries, diamonds, Hollywood, guns, roses, or driving around and getting high. This was a dreamy, degraded way of looking at things; until “Lust for Life,” her new album, a certain set of idols—money, beauty, violence, oblivion—ran the show.

Particularly on her first two albums, Del Rey seemed so fully committed to a posture of submission that critics and other listeners, in an age when women’s empowerment has gone fully mainstream, seemed alternately disgusted and enthralled. “I’ve got a taste for men who are older / It’s always been, so no surprise,” she sings on “Cola.” Later in the song, she rhymes “I fall asleep in an American flag” with “I pledge allegiance to my dad.” She sees herself through the eyes of her married love interest: “All he wants to do is party with his pretty baby.” On “Sad Girl,” another song about a married man, from her third album, “Ultraviolence,” she’s “his Bonnie on the side, his money on the side.” The entire chorus of another “Ultraviolence” track is Del Rey repeating, “I’m pretty when I cry.”

Of course, she’s not alone in looking at herself. Pop music by women, especially lately, is marked by self-surveillance of the sort that Berger had in mind. At the peak of her perfect single “Teenage Dream,” Katy Perry sings, “Imma get your heart racing,in my skintight jeans / Be your teenage dream tonight.” Most of Taylor Swift’s oeuvre is a reimagining of the ways that other people see her: “Say you’ll remember me / Standing in my nice dress, staring at the sunset, babe.” What distinguished Del Rey was that dark, unnerving, submissive quality. She was deliberately playing with the narratives she drew from; nonetheless, she seemed content to mold herself into well-worn stories, to pay tribute to retrograde ideas of power. Women are often asked to do those things. So are citizens.

“Lust for Life” marks a shift in Del Rey’s approach, though not in her interests. The libidinous energy of “Born to Die” has mellowed; the psychedelic reverie of 2014’s “Ultraviolence” and 2015’s “Honeymoon” has cleared away. For the first time, Del Rey isn’t figuring herself as the protagonist but as the narrator. The first couplet of the album, on the gorgeous and magnanimous single “Love,” is, “Look at you kids, with your vintage music / Coming through satellites while cruising.” On much of the album she sounds like a fairy godmother, a good witch of the West Coast—surveying, at age thirty-two, a younger subset of people who seem as beautiful and delicate and helpless as she once felt herself to be. There’s a quiet, open, old-fashioned simplicity in some of her lyrics: “Maybe my contribution / Could be as small as hoping / That words would turn to birds / And birds would send my thoughts your way.” She is just as romantic, but her view of love has opened up. It’s no longer a sexually charged power play between two stylized ideas of a man and a woman. It’s just love.

And what about America? Del Rey’s thematic fixations have always allowed her to merge disparate eras: she draws on thirties fake-book melodies, sixties surf-rock reverb, and contemporary hip-hop production, chromatically aligning everything with her deep romantic bent. These days, however, America’s past feels treacherous and its future alarming—romance doesn’t fit well with one of her primary subjects anymore. Del Rey has spoken about the Trump era in interviews, sometimes vaguely and sometimes sharply. She changed her tour visuals, she told Pitchfork: instead of the American flag, which she loves, she’d “rather have static,” she said. I appreciate the simplicity of this position; at a time when other artists are working overtime to muster a cogent thesis about America, Del Rey is letting her instinct for doom and darkness trouble the waters. At Pitchfork, Meaghan Garvey described “Lust for Life” as a vanitas painting about America. The images have changed: the beaches are black, the roses are burning. The flag looks like static, and a collective ruin seems to be at hand. Del Rey is getting out from under the narratives that have determined her. She is starting to work as if she’s seeing things rather than being seen.